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PERSONAL AND IMPERSONAL GROUPS. 381
PERSONAL AND IMPERSONAL GROUPS.
HENET NELSON WIEMAN.
"C^OR the purpose of connecting more closely with cur-
■"• rent discussion this paper has been put into the form
of a criticism of an article by Professor J. E. Boodin, pub-
lished in The International Journal of Ethics for
January, 1920, and entitled "The Unit of Civilization."'
Professor Boodin maintains that there is one supreme
principle of social organization to which everything else
in society should be subordinated. This principle we call
the principle of personal organization. It is embodied in
what may be called the personal group. By personal group
we mean any small group of individuals, brought together
in face to face converse, between whom natural human
sympathy plays spontaneously, and in which the unique
personality of each can be recognized by the other members
of the group. This group Professor Boodin calls the unit
In his article Professor Boodin recognizes two types of
social groups; but only one of these is ultimate, according
to him, the other being altogether derivative, artificial,
instrumental, having no value save as it promotes the first
kind of group. Generally this second kind of group, he
thinks, is an excrescence upon the social order. These two
types of social organization we designate the personal and
the impersonal, respectively. In analyzing and defining
these two we shall not follow Boodin very closely; but I
think we shall be altogether true to his thought.
1. The Two Groups Contrasted.
The personal and impersonal groups may be contrasted
with one another on four counts.
1. In the personal group the individual responds to the
total personality of the other members of the group. By
that we mean that each member adapts himself to the
Vol. XXXI— No. 4. 3
382 INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF ETHICS.
thoughts, sentiments, purposes and needs of the other
members. Each regards the other as a unique individual
to whom he adjusts himself in a special way. Each under-
stands the other. Any association of friends would repre-
sent such a group. However, it is, quite possible to have
a personal group in which there is antagonism and hate,
providing only there is this mutual recognition of the unique
individuality of each, and special response to such unique
In the impersonal group, on the other hand, there is no
such recognition of personality among the members. Each
may respond to some act on the part of the other just as
one would respond to some physical object or mechanical
signal; each may respond to some function of the other;
or it may be merely the spatial position of the other to
which one adapts himself. In any case it is not the unique
individual purpose, not the shades of feeling, in the other
which one recognizes; it is not the more comprehensive
thought of the other that one appreciates. The Southern
California Edison Company is an example of an impersonal
group of which we all are members if we use the electricity
which it supplies. The bank in which we have money
deposited is one of the impersonal groups, including all
the other depositors and borrowers as well as the officials.
Our Life Insurance Company is another impersonal group
including all the other policy holders and the officials as
well as the investors of the deposited funds.
2. The second point of difference between these groups
lies in the degree to which one's entire personality is in-
volved in the response. The first point of difference lay
in the object of response, which in the personal group was
approximately the entire personality of the other. This
second point of difference 'lies in the subject of response,
which in the personal group is approximately the entire
personality of the self. By entire personality we mean
that complete system of instincts, sentiments, purposes,
interests, pre-dispositions, wishes, wants, call them what
you will, which go to make up the dynamics of the human
PERSONAL AND IMPERSONAL GROUPS. 383
organism. In order to have a comprehensive term with
which to designate this dynamic equipment of the human
being I shall use the word tendency, meaning by it every-
thing from reflex to life-purpose. 1 The distinctive feature
of the personal group is, then, that a great many more
tendencies of the individual are simultaneously aroused in
the response between its members than is the case in
response between members of the impersonal group. It is
in the personal group that we find most activity of those
deeper sentiments such as love, play, hate, etc., which are
nothing else than organized systems of tendency including
all or most of the major instincts. In the home, in the
association of friends, in the discussion group, we experi-
ence that stimulation of all our tendencies, which appears
in consciousness either in the form of deep pervasive emo-
tion or else in the form of mental activity, wide, varied,
rapid, creative and spontaneous.
In the impersonal group, on. the other hand, emotion is
at the minimum and mental activity, although at times it
may be very strenuous, is effortful rather than spontaneous,
instrumental rather than creative, exercised as a means to
ultimate satisfaction rather than as satisfying in itself.
All response in the impersonal group tends to assume the
form of the minor units of behavior which operate auto-
matically. Thus in the impersonal group of motorists on
a congested street corner one tends to respond to the signals
of the road in an automatic fashion. When the man in
front of me holds out his hand, indicating that he intends
to turn to the right, I adapt my conduct to his with scarcely
any emotion or thought upon the matter. In the bank I
sign my name to the check, thus responding to the require-
ments of the group. But only a very few of the tendencies
constituting my personality are involved in the act. In
the polite society of the ball room or reception hall my
conduct becomes an unemotional, unthinking, mechanical
fulfilment of the rules of etiquette just in so far as the group
1 Cf. Holt, E. B. The Freudian Wish. Pp. 3 and 4.
384 INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF ETHICS.
is an impersonal one. But the moment I meet there an
old friend or an old enemy, my response is transformed.
My conduct ceases to be a matter of a few reflexes and
comes to involve all those tendencies that make up the
deeper sentiments and more comprehensive purposes of
3. The third point of distinction between these groups
lies in the plasticity and the rigidity of their respective
types of order. The order of the personal group is highly
plastic; that of the impersonal is rigid. The order of the
personal group is constantly shaped and reshaped by the
changing needs and purposes of its members, because its
system of organization is nothing else than the mutual
adaptation of its several members to the needs and pur-
poses of each. It adapts itself to every personality that
comes into it, just as the personality reciprocally adapts
himself to the group. Thus it is in the personal group
that one finds maximum social freedom, just as we have
already seen that in the personal group mentality is most
fully aroused, emotion most deeply stirred and understand-
ing of other persons most complete.
The order of the impersonal group, we have said, mani-
fests rigidity. Its order is prescribed by rules and regula-
tions. It is not maintained by mutual adaptation of per-
sons directly to one another, but rather by adaptation of
each person to the impersonal regulations or code that is
enforced. This code may be designed and enforced by
some dominating personality, or it may be merely the prod-
uct of accumulating tradition. In any case it constitutes
a framework into which each member of the group must
fit himself, and in so doing his activities are automatically
co-ordinated with those of the other members of the group.
The members of an industrial plant, for instance, may act
in such a way as to constitute a beautifully co-ordinated
system. This system, however, does not arise out of any
mutual consideration for one another on the part of the
workers. It arises out of the mechanism of regulations by
which their activities are co-ordinated.
PERSONAL AND IMPERSONAL GROUPS. 385
4. The fourth point of contrast is in respect to the per-
manence or change of the personnel of the two groups
respectively. The personnel of the personal group is rela-
tively permanent. The personnel of the impersonal group
is constantly changing; The employees of the industrial
plant come and go, but the members of the home continue
their relations to one another throughout a life-time. The
political order may seem to be an exception to this, for it
may be quite impersonal, and yet its personnel is fairly
permanent. This, however, is due to the peculiar position
of the political order relative to the other groups. It is
supervisory over all the other groups, and hence, wherever
we go we are always either actually or potentially under
its control. However, it should be borne in mind that the
political order is usually less impersonal than the industrial
These are the four points of contrast between the per-
sonal and the impersonal groups. In the personal group
the response of the members to one another involves the
entire personality, both as subject and as object of response;
its order is highly plastic; and its personnel is permanent.
In the impersonal group the response of the members to
one another involves the minimum of personality both as
subject and as object; its order is rigid and its personnel
2. SUPPLEMENTARY CHARACTEB OF THE TWO GROUPS.
It should be noted that no actual social group is ever
purely personal or purely impersonal. All actual social
groups are a mixture of these two types. But we call any
group personal rather than the opposite if in it the personal
type greatly predominates over the other. There are
many actual social groups which are very largely personal;
there are others which are very largely impersonal.
Our thesis is that these two types of social order, or, as
Plato might say, these two ideas of society, are both indis-
pensable. One cannot be reduced to the other or derived
from the other, or made purely instrumental to the other.
386 INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF ETHICS.
On the contrary each contributes something which is indis-
pensable to the life of society. What is more, each contrib-
utes something which is indispensable to the life of human-
ity, as over against the life of lower animals. 2 This is our
point of difference with Professor Boodin.
Lack of space forbids more than briefest reference to the
correlative values of these groups; but we must indicate,
however sketchily, some of the chief matters with respect
to which they are supplementary to one another, and so
The personal group provides social freedom by reason of
its plasticity and that mutual adaptation and comprehen-
sion of personal purpose on the part of its members relative
to one another. The impersonal group, on the other hand,
provides discipline which is equally requisite for human life
in order to stabilize human purpose and bring human
endeavor into effective action upon the grim facts of reality
The personal group stimulates the mind to maximum
creative activity; but it is the impersonal group which
enables the individual to gather that wealth of data which
it requires as material to work upon. The Socratic dia-
logues show how the mind may be aroused to maximum
activity but its efforts rendered largely unproductive
because of that lack of data which only the impersonal
group can provide. The glory of Greek civilization was
its high development of the personal group ; the weakness of
Greek civilization was the inadequacy of its impersonal
The personal group engenders that progressive evolution
of human purpose which is perhaps the most striking charac-
teristic of human life in contrast to the lower orders. Man's
purpose ever widens as it advances, like the rolling snow-
ball. It is the personal group that makes it so widen. But
it is the impersonal group which alone is able to provide
that mechanism of achievement by which such purposes
can be executed and so lead on to something larger.
2 Cf. Hocking, W. E. Human Nature and its Remaking. Chap. 34, 35.
PERSONAL AND IMPERSONAL GROUPS. 387
It is the personal group which causes the human con-
stantly to amplify his environment, i. e., seek response to
an ever greater number of different qualities in each object
and an ever greater number of different objects to which to
respond. But it is the impersonal group which standard-
izes his response to the given environment in such way as
to assure sufficient collective adaptation to it.
It is the personal group that engenders delicacy of re-
sponse and. depth of emotion. But it is the impersonal
group which provides that interlocking chain of conse-
quences and that wide field of endeavor by reason of which the
results of one human life become a worthy object of deepest
emotion and most delicate susceptibility. In a word, it is
the impersonal group, with its wide reaching systems of
co-ordination and its indestructible institutions, that give
world-wide significance and historic efficacy to the work
of the individual.
After these very meager statements of the supplementary-
character of the two types of social order, suffice it to say
that these two types together constitute the motor of social
evolution. Take away either one and the process of social
development comes to an end. That fertility of the historic
social process, out of which has arisen all the arts and
sciences, is due to the marriage of these two types, in so
far as social organization has anything to do with the procr
ess. The entire social problem may be resolved ultimately
to the matter of adjusting these two systems to one another
in such a way as best to promote human welfare. All the
evils of the social order at the present time, or at any
time, we believe, may be traced back to some maladjust-
ment of these two types to one another. Individualism,
for instance, when it is not a meaningless abstraction, can
mean nothing else than the personal group. Socialism,
meaning by that term not a political party but a certain
principle, can be significant only as it represents the princi-
ple of impersonal organization. Liberty and law is another
antithesis which finds its interpretation in these two con-
trasting types. Human rights and property rights is an-
388 INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF ETHICS.
other dyad that springs from this same opposition of prin-
ciples. All the modern problems of industry, of political
science, of the home and family, of education and of insti-
tutional church head up into this problem of how to adjust
the personal and impersonal groups to one another. Our
criticism of« Boodin is that he has traced all these problems
back to a monadic principle. We maintain on the other
hand that the ultimate principle is dyadic.
The details of the adjustment of these two orders to one
another and the practical execution of this adjustment lies
outside the field of Philosophy; but the analysis of the
problem and the general principles of the adjustment are
distinctively the work of Philosophy. Furthermore, before
the expert and the specialist can approach such a problem
with any reasonable hope of success, there is one supreme
question for which he must have the answer. And only
Philosophy can give the answer.
3. Human Welfake as the Standard for Adjusting
The problem is how to adjust these two orders to one
another in such a way as best to promote human welfare.
But what is human welfare? That is the one supreme
question. We say that only Philosophy can give the
answer. It is true that philosophers are by no means
unanimous in their answer. Nevertheless, just as soon as
anyone begins to enquire what- is the nature of human wel-
fare in general he forthwith becomes a philosopher whether
he will or no, for that is a philosophical investigation. We
must then endeavor to state what is the nature of human
welfare in so far as it bears upon this problem of adjusting
the two orders to one another.
Holt, Perry 3 and others, have defined human welfare as
that organization which will yield maximum fulfilment to
the greatest number of tendencies, irrespective of time,
place, person, or other quality that may inhere in the tend-
s Holt, E. B. The Freudian Wish; Perry, R. B. The Moral Economy.
PERSONAL AND IMPERSONAL GROUPS. 389
encies concerned. Perhaps our own statement of human
welfare may be best presented by contrasting it with this
of Holt and Perry, because, while it is closely allied thereto,
it is markedly different. We should say that human wel-
fare consists of that organization which yields maximum
simultaneous activity (not maximum fulfilment) to the
greatest number of tendencies in each individual concerned.
The opposition is between the two terms, maximum fulfil-
ment and maximum simultaneous activity.
Maximum fulfilment of the greatest number of tenden-
cies requires a serial co-ordination of them in such manner
that each can be fulfilled in succession one after the other.
Simultaneous arousal of them, on the other hand, may
make impossible the fulfilment of any one of them in the
sense of bringing that one to quiescence through satiety. 4
Thus, if in presence of an apple the food-getting impulse is
the only one aroused, I shall eat the apple and thus bring
the tendency to an end through its fulfilment. But sup-
pose in addition to the food-getting impulse, there is also
aroused an aesthetic response to its color and shape, also a
sentimental response because of its association with the old
home orchard of my boyhood; furthermore, it symbolizes
to me the beloved personality of the one who gave it to me.
Also, as I contemplete it, many a myth and legend comes
to me — the apple of discord cast among the Greek gods,
the apples of Hesperides, the apple which Atlantis stooped
to pick up, the apple which Eve first ate, etc. These do
not by any means come clearly to my focus of conscious-
ness, but waver about the fringe of consciousness, being
simultaneously aroused and holding one another in abey-
ance. Plainly such a response involves the simultaneous
activity of a great many tendencies with respect to the
apple. The very multiplicity of these prevents any one
of them from overt fulfilment in the form of eating the
apple, tossing it in the air, fingering it, giving it away, etc.
It is maximum simultaneous activity of tendencies, not
maximum fulfilment of them.
4 Cf. Stewart, J. A. Plato's Doctrine of Ideas. Part II.
390 INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF ETHICS.
The sort of response just described may be called total
response, because it involves so many tendencies. It ap-
proximates response of the total personality, in contrast to
that succession of responses wherein each represents merely
a fraction of the personality.
We have said that total response does not yield fulfil-
ment of tendency. But here a distinction must be made.
There is one type of tendency which does find fulfilment in
total response, but it is a type not generally recognized
among behaviorists. We must define it.
Human tendencies may be divided into two kinds, cen-
tral and peripheral; or, if one prefers other language, deter-
mining adjustments and units of behavior. 5 Peripheral
tendencies or units of behavior seek to attain a certain
equilibrium between the organism and the environment;
when this equilibrium is attained these tendencies are ful-
filled and become quiescent. The central tendencies or
determining adjustments, on the other hand, have a very
different function. They do not act directly upon the
environment, but operate only upon the peripheral tenden-
cies or units of behavior in order to organize these units of
behavior into a system, adjust them to one another and
to the environment, regulate and direct them in various
Now it is plain that while total response prevents the
fulfilment of the peripheral tendencies to some measure,
it gives largest possible fulfilment to the central tendencies ;
for it is only when many different tendencies are aroused
simultaneously that it is possible to organize any complex
and extensive system of reaction. But this process of
organizing is precisely what constitutes fulfilment of the
central tendencies. Total response, then, means maximum
fulfilment of central tendencies, but not maximum fulfil-
ment of peripheral tendencies. That situation in which
central tendencies find largest fulfilment is the one in which
6 Tolman, E. C, in Psychological Review, May 1920, Vol. 27, p. 217, article
entitled, "Instinct and Purpose."
PERSONAL AND IMPERSONAL GROUPS. 391
is required most reorganization of peripheral tendencies,
their greatest readjustment and redirection. The situa-
tion in which peripheral tendencies find largest fulfilment,
on the other hand, is the one in which these tendencies
require least readjustment, least reorganization and least
So we have two kinds of good, two kinds of satisfaction,
two kinds of value, which are qualitatively different from
one another and altogether incommensurable. It is im-
possible to measure one against the other to see which is
greatest in quantity. The two cannot be quantitatively
compared, because there is no common unit with which to
measure them. These two kinds of good may be desig-
nated spiritual and material, respectively. These two
terms, spiritual and material, are often used in a very vague
sense; but our analysis, we believe, gives to them a ra-
tional and psychologically justified meaning.
These two values constitute the dyadic principle of human
life. Both are indispensable. Take away either one and
human life would disappear. Take away total response,
leaving serial co-ordination, and human life would cease
to be human. It would become that of lower animals.
Take away serial co-ordination, leaving total response, and
the human race would shortly cease to exist in any form
whatever. Total response is fertile and creative, ever
generating more complex forms of behavior. Serial co-or-
dination is specific and adaptive, ever sustaining that vital
equilibrium which the living organism requires for its
existence. Total response continuously amplifies the en-
vironment to which the organism responds; serial co-
ordination continuously adapts the organism to its given
4. Priority of the Personal Group.
Although these two modes of response are equally indis-
pensable, one may have priority over the other. Which
should it be? As said before, we cannot compare the two
quantitatively and give priority to the one which yields
392 INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF ETHICS.
the greatest amount of good, because the two are incom-
mensurable. They cannot be quantitatively compared.
There is only one other method of determining which of
the two should have priority. That is to study the two
great evolutionary processes which are developing human
life. These two are biological evolution and social evolu-
tion. If we should discover that these two processes are
steadily increasing the one kind of human good while they
are scarcely sustaining the other kind even at its ancient
level, then our question would be answered. Then we
should know that the world process is bent on developing
to the maximum one of these, but not the other. Then we
should know that the world process had decided the matter
for us and given priority to the one. We, as frail humans,
could do nothing else than adapt ourselves to this process.
We cannot here take space to outline any such study of
evolution. We shall only say in passing that our findings
seem to indicate plainly that the good of total response is
the one which is being ever enlarged by the processes of
If this be the nature of human welfare it throws some
light on the problem of how to adjust the personal and the
impersonal groups. The personal group, as we have seen,
represents total response. The impersonal order sustains
serial co-ordination. Our criterion indicates that the per-
sonal group should be given priority. This, of course, is
only the barest introduction to the problem.
Let us say in conclusion that our modern society is
plainly suffering from an inordinate development of the
impersonal group. There is, however, a very wide recog-
nition of this evil and there are some very interesting social
movements on foot to rectify it. The evil is most acute
in the industrial world and it is there that the most striking
of these movements appear. Note, for instance, the recent
development of shop committees, the participation in man-
• This theme is developed by L. T. Hobhouse in his books, Morals in Evolu-
tion and Development and Purpose.
PERSONAL AND IMPERSONAL GROUPS. 393
agement on the part of the employees, the organization or
proposed organization of all workers in certain industries
for the purpose of exercising full powers of management.
This last appears in the Building Trades of England and
was proposed in the Plumb Plan for the American railroads.
These movements, directed to throw off the crushing
yoke of the impersonal system from the neck of the personal
order, are not limited to the industrial world alone. There
are similar movements, less developed, but nevertheless
genuine, in the world of political organization, in education,
in ecclesiasticism and the home. Everything seems to
indicate that we are on the verge of a vast social trans-
formation in which the personal group shall again regain
its dominance. The danger will be that we shall swing to
the opposite extreme and ignore the values of the imper-
sonal system altogether. That would be as disastrous as
the immediate past has been with its overweening strength
of the impersonal order.
Henry Nelson Wieman.